Judge halts counties' lawsuit against 5 narcotic drug manufacturers

A judge halted a government lawsuit Thursday against five of the world's largest narcotics manufacturers in spite of an impassioned plea by Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas that the companies pay for the damages of a prescription drug epidemic.

The ruling came in a suit filed last year by Orange and Santa Clara counties accusing the companies of fraudulently marketing addictive painkillers to undermine the effect of warning labels required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The counties say that the efforts boosted sales of the dangerous drugs at the expense of public health. The companies say that the claims are unfounded.

In Thursday's hearing before Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Moss, the companies asked that the case be dismissed on the grounds that the FDA had exclusive jurisdiction over the matter.

Purdue Pharma lawyer Lisa Gilford argued that having a single point of oversight served the public interest because it was efficient, relied upon regulators' specialized expertise and prevented confusion. If Moss allowed the case to advance, Gilford said, he would, at best, duplicate FDA efforts and, at worst, risk issuing a decision at odds with the federal agency.

Rackauckas countered that the courts have long played an important role in protecting consumers alongside regulators. Speaking in a courtroom down the block from the coroner's office, he said that drug addiction was ravaging Orange County, claiming a life nearly every other day.

"The FDA is not going to help us with this," Rackauckas said. "This is a plague on our society. The suffering goes on day in and day out."

Moss acknowledged the scope of the problem but sided with the drug companies — to a point. He said he would put the case on hold indefinitely to allow the FDA to complete a pending inquiry into the safety and efficacy of painkillers. He also said he would dismiss the suit as long as the drug makers agreed to allow the counties to revive it, without forfeiting any potential damages, once the FDA completes its work.

Rackauckas said he was disappointed and was considering an appeal.

In a statement, Purdue said: "We are pleased Judge Moss agreed that complex scientific issues regarding the treatment of chronic pain are best decided by the FDA, the agency with relevant expertise."

The case by Orange and Santa Clara counties mirrors a suit filed against the same five companies last year by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. A third case pitting the state of Kentucky against a single company, OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, is moving toward trial after years of legal maneuvering. Together, the legal attack on the narcotics industry recalls government efforts to force tobacco companies to pay for the death and disease caused by cigarettes.

Moss' ruling is the latest setback in this legal attack on the painkiller industry.

In May, a federal judge presiding over the Chicago case dismissed the claims against all of the companies except Purdue. The ruling allowed Chicago to file an amended suit, and, on Wednesday, the city took the opportunity to revive its case.

The amended suit adds claims and details, including the allegation that even as the painkiller epidemic exploded across the country, manufacturers increased efforts to persuade more doctors to prescribe more of their drugs. The companies spent $288 million on marketing in 2011, three times the 2000 amount, Chicago says in the new suit.

A Times investigation published in 2012 found that nearly half of the deaths involving prescription drugs in Southern California from 2006 through 2011 involved at least one drug prescribed by a doctor.

The Times identified 71 Southern California doctors, including several from Orange County, who prescribed drugs to three or more patients who fatally overdosed.

lisa.girion@latimes.com

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